By Niki Messmore
I’ve been fortunate to have some excellent women mentors both as an undergrad at Bowling Green State University and during my masters at Indiana University. Indeed, I feel fortunate with how many women I’ve been able to work with in student affairs. But this summer I began to think about gender representation within higher education. Student affairs is a field that is predominantly female, yet many of our senior student affairs officers (SSAO) are white men (Engstrom, McIntosh, Ridzi, & Kruger, 2006).
So the question I have to ask is “Why aren’t there more women in senior student affairs positions?”
It seems strange, does it not? The field appears to embrace diversity and social justice – after all, “Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion” are one of the core competencies of student affairs. So why is there a disconnect? Even from a mathematical standpoint, if there is a larger population of women within the field then one would assume that more women would be senior officers.
Is there sexism in student affairs?
I’ll be honest with you: I don’t have an answer to these musings. I think this an area that we need to discuss as a field (#SAchillyclimate, anyone?).
There is a lack of research that analyzes the lack of female representation in SSAO positions, according to Yakaboski & Donahoo (2011), but here is a starting list of possible explanations
- Institutional Sexism: According to Acker (1990) organizational hierarchies are male dominated and the institutional structure demands conformity to male norms. Simply put, men are more likely to be seen as best representative of university leadership and women are not seen ‘as a good fit’ for leadership because they do not fit into those male norms; if anything women must assimilate in order to get promoted (Dale, 2007) – or get put into a ‘binder full of women’.
- Retention: Dissatisfaction due to sex discrimination and racial discrimination causes women to want to leave their positions (Blackhurst, 2000)
- Female Socialization: girls are taught to be nice and take care of another person’s needs over their own and not ask for things for themselves. This results in women not asking (or even realizing they can ask) for raises and promotion (Babcock & Laschever, 2007).
- Not on the ‘Right’ Track: Women, through their own volition or due to the institution, tend to work in roles that do not lead to SSAO positions. For example, studies show that Black women are concentrated in student affairs roles that are directly responsible for promoting diversity initiatives (Howard-Hamilton & Williams, 1996; Konrad & Pfeffer, 1991;Moses, 1997, cited in Belk 2006)
- Fewer Mentors: With few women SSAO, there are fewer women to mentor other women, creating a full-circle affect (Sagaria, & Rychener, 2002, as cited in Stimpson, 2009)
What are your thoughts? Do you agree with any of these explanations? Which ones would you add? How does the intersectionality of race, sexual orientation, ability, and other identities affect the promotion of women in student affairs?
Taking it further, if you identify as a man, do you think there is anything you (or your university) does that contributes to a chilly climate for women? What have you seen on your campus?
And if you identify as a woman, have you experienced any of these challenges to promotion or know someone who has?
**”Winter is coming” – a pop culture reference from Game of Thrones. See the meme here